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The lore and science of Doug firs and western redcedars

Photo by Rhonda Nowak The seed casings of female Douglas-fir cones look like the hind legs and tail of tiny, half-hidden mice.


show me

how to slow my metabolism

so I too can feel the seasons

show me

how to accept earth sustenance

so I too can have faith

in the long-term good

– Cynthia Leslie-Bole, “Redwood” in “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California,” 2018

Jerry and I are spending time in Bandon, a two-hour drive up Highway 101 from the Oregon Redwoods Trail in Brookings. There are no redwoods on our 2.5 acres of coastal woodland property, but we do have lots of other majestic conifers, including Douglas-firs and western redcedars.

Like the redwoods Leslie-Bole wrote about, some of these trees are the last remnants of an old-growth forest that used to be here; they “stand as a silent sentry/stolid and sure in the slowness of time.”

My gardening life these days is split between tending my raised beds (made from western redcedar) in the hoophouse, and thinning out some of the dead and sapling redcedars and Douglas-firs to improve the health of the woodland and to reduce the risk of wildfires. Through decades of neglect, teenage trees have been permitted to crowd their forebears, causing younger and older generations to grow at crazy angles as they’ve vied for limited sunlight.

Elsewhere in Bandon, clear-cutting continues as timber is harvested and commercial/residential developments are built. One week there’s a forest; the next, only stumps. But here at New Place (our name for the property where we hope to retire someday), we don’t take felling trees, even small, encroaching ones, lightly. Our commitment to land stewardship requires us to ponder the fate of each tree before we make the first killing cut.

It’s been a slow process, but it’s given us time to learn the stories of the Douglas-firs and the western redcedars — our majestic imposters.

I call them imposters because Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are not really fir trees, and redcedars (Thuja plicata) aren’t true cedars. But, of course, the deceit is a human-made one. The oft-named conifers, now classified as a pine and an arborvitae, have always been just what they are, no matter what they’ve been called.

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest told a legend about a great wildfire in the forest long ago that caused all of the animals to flee from their homes. But the tiny mice were not quick enough to outrun the fire, so they pleaded with the Douglas-fir trees for protection. The gracious old trees, impervious to the flames through their thick, textured bark, allowed the mice to scamper up their branches to safety and hide inside their cones.

The mice survived the fire, thanks to the tough Douglas-fir trees, and they formed a long-lasting friendship. If you look closely at a Douglas-fir cone today, the mice’s little hind legs and tail can still be seen poking out from underneath the scales.

After I read this story, I scampered out to examine one of the hundreds of Douglas-fir cones lying about and, sure enough, there they were. Actually, the mouse-like appendages are wings on the seed casings of female cones, designed to carry the seed on the wind for widespread dispersal. The fact and the fiction of Douglas-fir cones are marvelous.

The western redcedar has a legend of its own, told by the Samish tribe of coastal Washington state. According to the story, a long time ago there was a very big and very old Grandmother Redcedar tree. One day, a little tree began growing right next to her. It was her grandson, and this made Grandmother Redcedar very happy. As the grandson grew throughout the years, Grandmother protected him from windstorms, and the hot summer sun, and even the deer that liked to feed on his fresh, green branches.

Grandson Redcedar kept growing and growing until he was bigger than his grandmother. In time, Grandmother Redcedar grew too old to fight back against the wind, and the hot sun, and the deer, and she told her grandson, “Take care of yourself now; don’t worry about me.”

But Grandson Redcedar refused. “No, Grandmother, you protected me when I was young, and now I will do the same for you.” And so Grandson Redcedar took care of his beloved Grandmother Redcedar, and he grew old right alongside her.

I have several western redcedars, and other trees, that have conjoined trunks, a natural phenomenon called inosculation in which the trees eventually share a root system. Sometimes called “hugging trees,” conjoined trees can be the same species or they can be trees that commonly grow in the same plant community, such as western redcedars and Douglas-firs.

It’s fascinating to learn about the lore and the science of Pacific Northwest conifers. The more I know about them, the more careful I become before cutting down even the smallest member of our woodland community.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

My gardening to-do list this week

• After carefully selecting which trees to thin out, Jerry and I have been using the trunks and limbs to store carbon in the soil as we fill in some of the woodland areas.

• Squash bugs are attacking our pattypan squash. I recently shared a trick I learned from Medford gardener Bonnie Patterson, and here it is again: Roll a piece of masking tape into a circle, the wider the tape the better, with the sticky side out. Then roll the tape over the squash bugs and they’ll stick right to it. Also look for the small, brownish eggs and “stick it to ‘em,” too!

• I’m in the process of replenishing the soil in my raised beds in Bandon with compost, so I can plant seeds and starts for fall/winter crops. I’m finding a lot of pill bugs in the compost, which could start eating the leaves and roots of tender young plants. Like earwigs, pill bugs are attracted to beer, so I’ll ask Jerry to sacrifice some of his to pour into tuna cans and then bury the cans up to the lip in the raised bed. Check the cans frequently for drowned pill bugs, discard the dead bugs, and repeat.